The Innocents Abroad, by Mark Twain

Chapter 5

Taking it “by and large,” as the sailors say, we had a pleasant ten days’ run from New York to the Azores islands — not a fast run, for the distance is only twenty-four hundred miles, but a right pleasant one in the main. True, we had head winds all the time, and several stormy experiences which sent fifty percent of the passengers to bed sick and made the ship look dismal and deserted — stormy experiences that all will remember who weathered them on the tumbling deck and caught the vast sheets of spray that every now and then sprang high in air from the weather bow and swept the ship like a thunder-shower; but for the most part we had balmy summer weather and nights that were even finer than the days. We had the phenomenon of a full moon located just in the same spot in the heavens at the same hour every night. The reason of this singular conduct on the part of the moon did not occur to us at first, but it did afterward when we reflected that we were gaining about twenty minutes every day because we were going east so fast — we gained just about enough every day to keep along with the moon. It was becoming an old moon to the friends we had left behind us, but to us Joshuas it stood still in the same place and remained always the same.

Young Mr. Blucher, who is from the Far West and is on his first voyage, was a good deal worried by the constantly changing “ship time.” He was proud of his new watch at first and used to drag it out promptly when eight bells struck at noon, but he came to look after a while as if he were losing confidence in it. Seven days out from New York he came on deck and said with great decision:

“This thing’s a swindle!”

“What’s a swindle?”

“Why, this watch. I bought her out in Illinois — gave $150 for her — and I thought she was good. And, by George, she is good onshore, but somehow she don’t keep up her lick here on the water — gets seasick may be. She skips; she runs along regular enough till half-past eleven, and then, all of a sudden, she lets down. I’ve set that old regulator up faster and faster, till I’ve shoved it clear around, but it don’t do any good; she just distances every watch in the ship, and clatters along in a way that’s astonishing till it is noon, but them eight bells always gets in about ten minutes ahead of her anyway. I don’t know what to do with her now. She’s doing all she can — she’s going her best gait, but it won’t save her. Now, don’t you know, there ain’t a watch in the ship that’s making better time than she is, but what does it signify? When you hear them eight bells you’ll find her just about ten minutes short of her score sure.”

The ship was gaining a full hour every three days, and this fellow was trying to make his watch go fast enough to keep up to her. But, as he had said, he had pushed the regulator up as far as it would go, and the watch was “on its best gait,” and so nothing was left him but to fold his hands and see the ship beat the race. We sent him to the captain, and he explained to him the mystery of “ship time” and set his troubled mind at rest. This young man asked a great many questions about seasickness before we left, and wanted to know what its characteristics were and how he was to tell when he had it. He found out.

We saw the usual sharks, blackfish, porpoises, etc., of course, and by and by large schools of Portuguese men-of-war were added to the regular list of sea wonders. Some of them were white and some of a brilliant carmine color. The nautilus is nothing but a transparent web of jelly that spreads itself to catch the wind, and has fleshy-looking strings a foot or two long dangling from it to keep it steady in the water. It is an accomplished sailor and has good sailor judgment. It reefs its sail when a storm threatens or the wind blows pretty hard, and furls it entirely and goes down when a gale blows. Ordinarily it keeps its sail wet and in good sailing order by turning over and dipping it in the water for a moment. Seamen say the nautilus is only found in these waters between the 35th and 45th parallels of latitude.

“Land, Ho!”

At three o’clock on the morning of the twenty-first of June, we were awakened and notified that the Azores islands were in sight. I said I did not take any interest in islands at three o’clock in the morning. But another persecutor came, and then another and another, and finally believing that the general enthusiasm would permit no one to slumber in peace, I got up and went sleepily on deck. It was five and a half o’clock now, and a raw, blustering morning. The passengers were huddled about the smoke-stacks and fortified behind ventilators, and all were wrapped in wintry costumes and looking sleepy and unhappy in the pitiless gale and the drenching spray.

The island in sight was Flores. It seemed only a mountain of mud standing up out of the dull mists of the sea. But as we bore down upon it the sun came out and made it a beautiful picture — a mass of green farms and meadows that swelled up to a height of fifteen hundred feet and mingled its upper outlines with the clouds. It was ribbed with sharp, steep ridges and cloven with narrow canyons, and here and there on the heights, rocky upheavals shaped themselves into mimic battlements and castles; and out of rifted clouds came broad shafts of sunlight, that painted summit, and slope and glen, with bands of fire, and left belts of somber shade between. It was the aurora borealis of the frozen pole exiled to a summer land!

We skirted around two-thirds of the island, four miles from shore, and all the opera glasses in the ship were called into requisition to settle disputes as to whether mossy spots on the uplands were groves of trees or groves of weeds, or whether the white villages down by the sea were really villages or only the clustering tombstones of cemeteries. Finally we stood to sea and bore away for San Miguel, and Flores shortly became a dome of mud again and sank down among the mists, and disappeared. But to many a seasick passenger it was good to see the green hills again, and all were more cheerful after this episode than anybody could have expected them to be, considering how sinfully early they had gotten up.

But we had to change our purpose about San Miguel, for a storm came up about noon that so tossed and pitched the vessel that common sense dictated a run for shelter. Therefore we steered for the nearest island of the group — Fayal (the people there pronounce it Fy-all, and put the accent on the first syllable). We anchored in the open roadstead of Horta, half a mile from the shore. The town has eight thousand to ten thousand inhabitants. Its snow-white houses nestle cosily in a sea of fresh green vegetation, and no village could look prettier or more attractive. It sits in the lap of an amphitheater of hills which are three hundred to seven hundred feet high, and carefully cultivated clear to their summits — not a foot of soil left idle. Every farm and every acre is cut up into little square inclosures by stone walls, whose duty it is to protect the growing products from the destructive gales that blow there. These hundreds of green squares, marked by their black lava walls, make the hills look like vast checkerboards.

The islands belong to Portugal, and everything in Fayal has Portuguese characteristics about it. But more of that anon. A swarm of swarthy, noisy, lying, shoulder-shrugging, gesticulating Portuguese boatmen, with brass rings in their ears and fraud in their hearts, climbed the ship’s sides, and various parties of us contracted with them to take us ashore at so much a head, silver coin of any country. We landed under the walls of a little fort, armed with batteries of twelve-and-thirty-two-pounders, which Horta considered a most formidable institution, but if we were ever to get after it with one of our turreted monitors, they would have to move it out in the country if they wanted it where they could go and find it again when they needed it. The group on the pier was a rusty one — men and women, and boys and girls, all ragged and barefoot, uncombed and unclean, and by instinct, education, and profession beggars. They trooped after us, and never more while we tarried in Fayal did we get rid of them. We walked up the middle of the principal street, and these vermin surrounded us on all sides and glared upon us; and every moment excited couples shot ahead of the procession to get a good look back, just as village boys do when they accompany the elephant on his advertising trip from street to street. It was very flattering to me to be part of the material for such a sensation. Here and there in the doorways we saw women with fashionable Portuguese hoods on. This hood is of thick blue cloth, attached to a cloak of the same stuff, and is a marvel of ugliness. It stands up high and spreads far abroad, and is unfathomably deep. It fits like a circus tent, and a woman’s head is hidden away in it like the man’s who prompts the singers from his tin shed in the stage of an opera. There is no particle of trimming about this monstrous capote, as they call it — it is just a plain, ugly dead-blue mass of sail, and a woman can’t go within eight points of the wind with one of them on; she has to go before the wind or not at all. The general style of the capote is the same in all the islands, and will remain so for the next ten thousand years, but each island shapes its capotes just enough differently from the others to enable an observer to tell at a glance what particular island a lady hails from.

The Capote

The Portuguese pennies, or reis (pronounced rays), are prodigious. It takes one thousand reis to make a dollar, and all financial estimates are made in reis. We did not know this until after we had found it out through Blucher. Blucher said he was so happy and so grateful to be on solid land once more that he wanted to give a feast — said he had heard it was a cheap land, and he was bound to have a grand banquet. He invited nine of us, and we ate an excellent dinner at the principal hotel. In the midst of the jollity produced by good cigars, good wine, and passable anecdotes, the landlord presented his bill. Blucher glanced at it and his countenance fell. He took another look to assure himself that his senses had not deceived him and then read the items aloud, in a faltering voice, while the roses in his cheeks turned to ashes:

“‘Ten dinners, at 600 reis, 6,000 reis!’ Ruin and desolation!

“‘Twenty-five cigars, at 100 reis, 2,500 reis!’ Oh, my sainted mother!

“‘Eleven bottles of wine, at 1,200 reis, 13,200 reis!’ Be with us all!

“‘TOTAL, TWENTY-ONE THOUSAND SEVEN HUNDRED REIS!’ The suffering Moses! There ain’t money enough in the ship to pay that bill! Go — leave me to my misery, boys, I am a ruined community.”

Ruin and Desolation

I think it was the blankest-looking party I ever saw. Nobody could say a word. It was as if every soul had been stricken dumb. Wine glasses descended slowly to the table, their contents untasted. Cigars dropped unnoticed from nerveless fingers. Each man sought his neighbor’s eye, but found in it no ray of hope, no encouragement. At last the fearful silence was broken. The shadow of a desperate resolve settled upon Blucher’s countenance like a cloud, and he rose up and said:

“Landlord, this is a low, mean swindle, and I’ll never, never stand it. Here’s a hundred and fifty dollars, Sir, and it’s all you’ll get — I’ll swim in blood before I’ll pay a cent more.”

Our spirits rose and the landlord’s fell — at least we thought so; he was confused, at any rate, notwithstanding he had not understood a word that had been said. He glanced from the little pile of gold pieces to Blucher several times and then went out. He must have visited an American, for when he returned, he brought back his bill translated into a language that a Christian could understand — thus:

10 dinners, 6,000 reis, or $6.00
25 cigars, 2,500 reis, or 2.50
11 bottles wine, 13,200 reis, or    13.20

Total 21,700 reis, or

$21.70

Happiness reigned once more in Blucher’s dinner party. More refreshments were ordered.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 20:05